Spectrum Push Aimed at WLANs

Some of the biggest names in IT--including Microsoft, Intel and Cisco--are seeking permission for unlicensed use of airwaves to expand budding wireless LAN technologies, a move that has the support of FCC Chairman Michael Powell.

The Federal Communications Commission is answering a call from some of the biggest names in IT, which are seeking permission for unlicensed use of airwaves to expand budding wireless LAN technologies.

In their quest for spectrum, companies including Microsoft Corp., Intel Corp. and Cisco Systems Inc. are looking to expand options for wireless data networks. But while the move has the support of FCC Chairman Michael Powell, any plan would first have to overcome objections by current users of the frequencies—namely, politically powerful broadcasters and cellular carriers.

Last week, the FCC launched an inquiry to examine whether unlicensed operations should be allowed in the TV broadcast band and in some bands where handsets and other mobile devices operate. While unlicensed spectrum typically has been used for low-power products such as cordless phones and baby monitors, FCC officials said new unlicensed bands could host broadband connectivity for LANs as well as last-mile links.

The growing popularity of WLANs has raised the profile of IT companies in Washington. Since the summer, the companies have been lobbying the FCC and Congress to make more spectrum available to vendors that want to use it cooperatively rather than bid for an exclusive band at auction. At a public meeting here last week, most commissioners praised the potential of unlicensed wireless operations and said they are ready to consider letting unlicensed users share the bands.

"Technological advances now allow smart, low-power devices to communicate in open spaces that were previously closed to development. These technological advances are great news," Powell said. "Unlicensed devices have become ubiquitous."

For IT managers, additional spectrum could mean fewer worries about interference among wireless devices. But new frequencies necessitate the development of new technology. Officials at Intel said there are several efforts afoot in the Santa Clara, Calif., companys labs that could take advantage of additional spectrum.

"The idea here is to make it as broad as possible so that experimenters could do a lot of things with the radio spectrum," said Mike Chartier, director of regulatory policy for wireless at Intel. "We have a lot of programs in our labs, such as [SDRs, or software-defined radios], smart antennas, and were looking at integrating radios onto chips along with CPUs."

Chartier said SDRs are designed to detect available spectrum, which would make them ideal for sniffing open space in occupied bands. A special interest group, the SDR Forum, has commissioned work to develop a standard.

The industry also has support in the Senate, where enthusiasm about WLANs is crossing party lines. Sen. George Allen, R-Va., and Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., are readying a bill that would set aside 255MHz of new spectrum for WLAN hot spots.

One vendor busy working behind the scenes for new unlicensed frequencies is Microsoft. In July, the Redmond, Wash., company told the FCC that if it were allocated additional unlicensed spectrum below 2GHz and in the 5GHz band, the company could jump-start the deployment of wireless broadband networks, which it said would compete with digital subscriber line and cable access.

The FCC inquiry will also include bands below the 900MHz range, some of which may include frequencies occupied by cell phone carriers.

Officials at the Cellular Telecommunications & Internet Association, in Washington, said the industry is watching the inquiry with guarded interest.